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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

It's OLMSTED, damn it.

If you thought, as I did, that a couple of years back we (my sister and I) had finished sorting and purging the files from my Mother’s capacious and apparently infinite file cabinets back at the Orchard, you would be wrong, as I was. Several of the files in question had merely decamped to my sister’s house in Maine, “to be sorted later”. That later was last weekend. While winter behaved somewhat wintrily outside, we sat by our living room fire and went through files upon files containing my mother’s correspondence, every last letter saved, every copy of her letters saved as well.

It was after many hours of skimming and consigning to the flames those pounds of paper, heavy weight typing paper as well as feathery onionskin airmail paper, that we were rewarded with a file labeled “Olmsted.”

We all know that in life there are many things we cannot change. If you’ve ever had children or been in a relationship, even with a colony of bees, sooner or later you accept that you cannot change others. If you live in the world, you know that no amount of wishing and letter writing, no amount of gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts can alter the outcome of recent elections.
My mother knew this as well as anyone. But there were things she could change, there were solecisms she could repair, and there were misspellings she could correct. Again and again.

My mother’s Olmsted file contained copies of at least twenty letters she had written over the years in her effort to assure the name of America’s greatest landscape architect its correct orthography. The file also included the original of the document containing the incorrect spelling, and the tragically few acknowledgments or thanks she received for her efforts.
Here are selections from the collected misspellings of Frederick Law Olmsted. FLO, by John Singer Sargent. From Wiki

1. An undated flyer from The Turpin Bannister Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, announcing their fall tours. A highlight of one was to be “lectures by two of the editors of the Olmstead Papers (sic) on Dowling and Olmstead (sic) as fathers of the American tradition in landscape architecture.”

2. 1980. An invitation from Senator Oliver Ames to a reception at his home “Langwater” in North Easton, Ma. In a paragraph describing historic Easton, we read of “the landscaping of Frederick Law Olmstead (sic).”

3. October 1981. A mailing from the Membership Director of The Trustees of Reservations, in which she referred to “a fall Olmstead (sic) tour”, and then announcing her intention to “research the Olmstead (sic) society.”

4. February 1983. The Hingham Journal. The first question in their “Hingham Quiz” was: “Who designed the period garden at the Old Ordinary?”. The answer given was Frederick Law Olmstead (sic).

5. March 1983. Newsletter from the Boston Society of Architects, a notice for an exhibit at MIT’s Graduate Center of Design about Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead” (sic). His name is also misspelled in the listing for lectures.

6. 1984. On page 502 of Samuel Elliot Morrison’s The Oxford History of the American People, the name is rendered as Olmstead (sic).

7. 1987. A flyer from the Metropolitan Museum of Art advertising their inshore cruise, “New England Collections.” It describes the carriage paths in Acadia National Park on MDI as “designed by Frederick Law Olmstead” (sic)

8. 1988. An engraved invitation from the Trustees of Reservations to the annual dinner of the 1891 Society, to be held at Castle Hill, in Ipswich. ….the gardens designed by the Olmstead Brothers (sic).

9. 1989. The Most Beautiful House in the World, by Witold Rybczynski. On page 109 Olmsted is correctly spelled once, but then in the next paragraph, it is given the usual misspelling.

10. January 1990. Flyer from The Old South Meeting House, Boston, advertising a lecture series. On January 18th the lecture was “Frederick Law Olmstead (sic) and the Emerald Necklace”.

11. March 1990. In the Society of Architectural Historians Journal, a list of winners of the Alice David Hitchcock Book Award. The award in 1974 was given to Laura Wood Roper for FLO, A Biography of Frederick Law Olmstead (sic).

12. May 1993. Article in The Boston Globe about the town of Easton, Ma.

13. February 1994. Biltmore Estate Catalogue. The pictures are elegant but the spelling is, again, wrong. Describing the “Olmstead (sic) Garden”, we read ..”Frederick Law Olmstead (sic), the noted designer of New York’s Central Park…”

14. October 1997. A brochure for the Newport Art Association about Central Park misspelled Olmsted’s name. Monique kindly suggested this might be a typographical error, as “he is too well known and recognized not to have his name correctly spelled.”
For this she received a grateful letter from the director of the Newport Art Museum.

15. October 1997. The Hingham Journal. In an otherwise fine article about the Trustees of the Reservations’ properties, the name of the “greatest American landscape architect” was, again, misspelled.

16. January 1998. The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Ma. Monique noted “You are not the first to make this mistake, but I was unhappy to see it in the Patriot Ledger which I admire and read daily.”

17. Winter 1998. The New England Hosta Society “Hosta News”. A member’s hosta garden in Chestnut Hill was described as having been designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (sic).
In the Spring Hosta Newsletter, thanks were given to an “alert member” for pointing out the egregious error.

18. May 1998. Shockingly, in the Style section of The New York Times, in a paragraph nestled amid Bill Cunningham’s iconic photos of ladies in pastel suits and flowery hats, was this unfortunate reference: “The annual Frederick Law Olmstead (sic) Awards Luncheon…”

19. March 1999. In The New York Times, an article about Vanderbilt’s library at Biltmore, North Carolina. Monique clearly was more than usually disturbed by this. She wrote: “Please, please, please……not in the New York Times……..Banish the “a”, it belongs in homestead, not in Olmsted.”
I am happy to report that Monique received a handwritten thank you from the writer, Peter Applebome, for spotting the error.

20. July 1999. The Boston Globe. In an article about “Eastholm”, the summer home of Richard and Annie Hoe in Seal Harbor, Maine, the beautiful but now overgrown gardens were said to have been designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (sic). Within two days of the article’s publication my mother sent off a correction.

Why did she stop? Is it possible that after the turn of the century the print media consistently spelled Olmsted correctly?
Or did my mother decide that she had done all that was possible to remedy human error in this instance? What happened to her sense of righteous indignation?

When I see my mother now, in the twenty-first century, and she asks me who I am and cheerfully points out the window at the skirts (sic) that are coming inside, then sighs and says, “I saw them, they had everything there. It worked out, it worked out nicely,” I miss the mother who valiantly strove to give Olmsted the correct spelling of his name in the last century.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Best Tempest. Ever.

First my friend Marianna told me that she had been asked to play the part of Prospero in a production on the Tempest on the island of Cuttyhunk.
Cuttyhunk? I said.
Yes, do you know it? She said.
Dolphins off Cuttyhunk.
Of all the beautiful, rocky, sandy, tick-infected, and tiny islands in the world, Cuttyhunk is the one I know the best. This is entirely due to the fishing gene. I do not have the fishing gene. But the fishing gene treads a very wide path through my family tree: I have one uncle, one brother, one cousin, one niece (daughter of brother) and one nephew (son of another brother who does not have the gene) who are all afflicted with the fishing gene. And people with the fishing gene flock to Cuttyhunk like pilgrims to Lourdes.* The rest of us follow because, even without the fishing gene, Cuttyhunk is lovely, remote, quiet, and weird in several very good ways. It is an isle full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

So, yes, I know Cuttyhunk.
And if my friend is going to be Prospero, I will come to see her.
She tells me the name of the fellow who will produce this island Tempest. I have no idea who he is, but of course my cousin and his wife who spend summers on Cuttyhunk and know its history down to the sassafras yields in 1699 know him, and fill me in on certain particulars.

Months pass.
A year passes.
I ask Marianna when she will be Prospero, and she says the date is not yet fixed. I give her the dates of several upcoming weddings of nieces and nephews (none of the fishing gene genre) so that, assuming she has any say in the matter, The Tempest will not be performed on those dates.
Then there is a date. She had no say, and neither did I, so it was pure lucky chance that the performance occurred on a day when no relative of mine was getting hitched.

One of the Cuttyhunk particulars about which my cousins alerted me was the Triple E threat.
My cousins kindly sent a link to a site where one can buy clothes already permeated with
Permethrin, a chemical insecticide that behaves like natural extracts from the chrysanthemum flower. If only I knew more about the natural behavior of chrysanthemums. My cousin Heidi, my traveling companion and fellow-braver of arachnid threats, and I proceeded to order several articles of clothing thus permeated. I tried not to think too much about the possible ill effects of wearing so much permethrin next to my body. If it repels ticks and mosquitoes, who in the grand scheme of things are similar to me in many ways, then what will it do to me?

The day before my departure for Cuttyhunk, Heidi called to tell me that our ride to the island, aboard the water taxi ‘Seahorse’, was cancelled, due to the Gale Force Winds expected. Of course there were Gale Force Winds and Small Craft Warnings, because we were going to see The Tempest. Get it? The Tempest. Still, no Seahorse.
After several amusing conversations about this uncanny convergence of weather and theater, we decided to take the ferry that departed New Bedford at 6pm. The ferry is larger than the Seahorse, and can manage high seas. Or medium high seas.

Driving to New Bedford I stopped in New Haven for lunch with a friend, and while we were walking from lunch to the Women’s Fountain at Yale, we heard a ruckus. On the corner of York and Elm was a man shouting about Jesus and sinners into a very amplified microphone. I read his sign and learned that it was SIN AWARENESS DAY. I wanted to believe that this particular day, this day when I happened to be in New Haven en route to Cuttyhunk, was the one and only particular SIN AWARENESS DAY. The way March 25th is Mustard Awareness Day and July 26th is Kiss a Wallaby Day.
Naturally I am aware of my sins every day, and most evenings.

Then I met Heidi in New Bedford and we took the ferry to Cuttyhunk.
As previously mentioned, Cuttyhunk is famous for its fishing. It is not famous as the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Tempest. Exactly one 19th writer posited that Shakespeare had read the journals of a sailor who had traveled to Cuttyhunk with Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602. The crew came ashore, collected several bales of wild sassafras, a valuable commodity in London, as it was considered to be a cure for syphilis. Which it was not. Twenty two days later, they all sailed back to England, so that real American history could begin properly in 1620.** The sailor wrote up his journals of sailing to this tiny island full of sassafras, ticks and quahogs, and it is within the realm of possibility that Shakespeare read the journals and was thereby inspired to write The Tempest.
It’s not much to go on, but it makes an excellent raison d’être for producing the play on a tiny island with exactly 12 year-round residents.

I am chagrinned to report that the trip from New Bedford to Cuttyhunk was remarkably smooth. We had lovely views of Penikese at sunset.

The next day presented a sunny countenance, but windy. Very windy. Wind does not bother ticks, but it can send vessels off course and onto the shoals. During the dress rehearsal Prospero shouted her lines over and across the northerly winds.
Then it was showtime, and the wind died down. From all over the island, from all over the fifty acres that are sparsely inhabited, people and golf carts converged on the slope overlooking Westend Pond and the Outer Bunker. Actually, almost everyone came from either the Avalon, or PetesplaceRentals.***

About thirty of us, many wearing multiple layers of clothing sprayed with the above-mentioned permethrin, sat upon blankets and rugs likewise sprayed with permethrin, spread over the rough grass that is home to multitudes of vectors of Triple E, Lyme disease, of ehrlichiosis, of a “torment to lay upon the damned”, of “all the infections that the sun sucks up from bogs, fens, flats, all wound with adders, who with cloven tongues do hiss [] into madness.”
Accompanied by beautiful live music played on a massive bass and two other instruments I can’t recall (and this is why a printed program would have been helpful), the play began.

Prospero “put the wild waters in this roar… and the sea mounting to the welkin’s cheek” and then he allayed them. The sailors “plunged in the foaming brine, and quite the vessel.” Noisemakers were insolent. Dogs were blasphemous. Miranda (played by the excellent Rebecca Blumhagen, and also directed) espied Ferdinand (Zachary Chastain, worthy of her affections), the first young man she has ever seen, and falls instantly and madly in love. “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in it!” Meanwhile, Trinculo, a jester and Stefano, a drunken butler, appear and reappear, popping out of old WW2 bunkers, and amusing us all. As those two, and others, Karis Danish and Nicole Rosenberg were brilliant, riffing with modern inflections, jumping and stumbling in the sea grass, taunting the indefatigable Caliban, poor Hag-Seed, played by Greg Brostrom.
There were revels. There was true love. There were long separated brothers reconciled.
The revels ended, and Prospero abjured his rough magic. Marianna/Prospero declaimed to us, and to the setting sun, that she would “break my staff, bury it certain fathoms in the earth, and deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll break my book.” It was wonderful, and I didn’t want it to end. Marianna, a mother and grandmother, brought to the role the depth of a true nurturer, with understanding of the great bliss and the great terror, that are the hallmarks of motherhood.

It is true that The Tempest has been performed on every continent but one, and Prospero’s indelible farewells, orations, and lamentations have been articulated, shouted, whispered, uttered, shouted maybe even lip synced by such eminences as John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Max von Sydow, Frank Langella, Vanessa Redgrave, and Helen Mirren.

Well, friends, add to their number the remarkable Marianna Houston.

In lieu of the above-lamented non-program, here is the cast as best I can:
Producer: Ben Shattuck + Karis Danis
Director: Rebecca Blumhagen
Choreography: Hannah Cruz
Musicians: René Cruz, Jesse Ciamentaro & someone else?
Ariel: Hannah Cruz
Miranda: Rebecca Blumhagen
Ferdinand: Zachary Chastain
Trinculo/Antonio: Karis Danish
King Alonso/Caliban: Greg Brostrom
Sebastian/Stefano: Nicole Rodenberg
Gonzalo: Jesse Liebman
Prospero: Marianna Houston





*For example: I have another nephew (one among many) who does not have the fishing gene. His girlfriend his Serbian; also partly Bolivian. The girlfriend’s Serbian father, a charming engineer, comes to Cuttyhunk once every year – from Belgrade – in order to fish. He stays at The Fishing Club. When I am visiting with cousins on Cuttyhunk, we sometimes gather at The Fishing Club for a very hearty breakfast. I do not use the Lourdes simile lightly.

** I write as one raised within spitting distance of Plymouth Rock, so I know this for a fact.

*** The Pete (97 and still fishing) of petesplacerentals.com is the original bearer of the familial fishing gene. Actually, no, it was probably his father, my grandfather. My grandfather, Hans Lehner, was born near Augsburg, Germany where it is unlikely he did any ocean fishing. Later, as a businessman in Boston, he fished often with his two sons. For reasons that only a person afflicted with the fish gene can possibly understand, many of the fish they caught were stuffed and mounted on wooden escutcheons and then hung all around the dining room, just below the egg and dart molding. As a child, no matter where one was seated in the ancestral dining room, there was an excellent view of dead and stuffed fish. The swordfish, naturally, was especially appetizing. For dining room décor it can only be topped, in my personal memory palace, by the life-size horizontal death-portrait of a second cousin Paul Brancart, hero of the Belgian resistance, that hung above the side board in the dining room of a great-uncle’s house in La Louvière, Wallonia, Belgium.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Everything about the Holy Thorn

Of all the things I expected from a sojourn in the Umbrian countryside (olive trees, wild boars, pasta, Roman noses, Etruscan vases, vin de table), the very last was the semiannual appearance of the Holy Thorn in Montone.

As we all know, a couple of weeks ago, Notre Dame in Paris was burning. Watchers around the world were horrified. But a mere twenty-four hours later, things were not looking so bleak. The Crown of Thorns and the beehives on the roof were unhurt by the fire. We received several emails from bee-loving friends with the news of the still-flying bees. But I had to learn of the Crown of Thorn’s escape on my own.

Then we were visiting friends at their exquisitely restored tobacco-drying barn, Bacciana. Montone is a walled town in Umbria, with some lovely restaurants, no decent postcards, and the ex-church of San Francesco featuring frescoes in terrible condition. But of the frescoes that are still extant, there are a cephalophore* and a very young and nubile Saint Sebastian.
While roaming around town reading menus, we learned that on every Easter Monday Montone celebrates the Gift of the Holy Thorn (Donazione della Santa Spina) with a day of pageantry, costumes, archery, puppetry, and handsome men in bicolored tights. Religiosity and shapely calves. What could be better?

In the 15th century, the Venetians, grateful for his help in defeating the Turkish invaders, gave Montone’s local squire, Braccio Fortebraccio** a single thorn from the crown of thorns: the Santa Spina. The Venetians had acquired the Crown a couple of centuries earlier, as collateral for a loan made to the warmongering Baldwin II of Constantinople. Baldwin never redeemed the Crown, but Louis IX of France did. Apparently the Venetians held back a few thorns.

If you care to research the history of the Crown of Thorns, and the various extracted thorns, you must be prepared for conjecture, legend, wishful thinking, and contradictions. Also just plain heresy.
Eagerly, I texted my sister that we would be seeing the Holy Thorn in Montone, and wasn’t this a fantastic coincidence, or just plain serendipity, that we would be in Montone for this celebration? She texted back that according to her research (Wiki) there was no Holy Thorn in Montone. I sent her a picture of the reliquary that was featured in the flyers all around town. She sent me a link to the Wiki page enumerating all the cities in Europe claiming one or more thorns. Montone was not among them. Cities in Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, Spain, Germany, Britain, Ukraine and five cities in Italy all lay claim to a portion, or a branch, or a thorn, or a fragment, of the Crown of Thorns. Even a chapel in Pittsburgh, USA, claims a thorn. But not Montone.

This is obviously yet another example of the fact that you can’t believe something just because you read it on the internet. I was in Montone and I saw the Holy Thorn. Well, I didn’t actually see the Holy Thorn because it was inside its special box. It wasn’t even in the beautiful reliquary shown on all the flyers, because at last year’s celebration, there was a touchy moment when the Montonian carrying the reliquary almost fell off his horse. But I did see the special box that was used in lieu of the reliquary. And I know what I saw.

*Cephalo-phore: a saint who has been decapitated and then carries around his/her head. If you don’t know this already, you haven’t been paying attention.
**His Wiki page also does not mention Montone’s Holy Thorn: a dereliction that makes me suspect a possible conspiracy by the other Thorn-Hoarding cities.


Monday, February 18, 2019

SUNDAY ROUTINE (with apologies to the New York Times)*

How Christine L, blogger, beekeeper, egg collector, terrible typist, and ranter, spends her Sundays

THE NEW YORK TIMES. “I am a very hardworking person,” Christine told us. “So on Sundays I like to wake up at 8, a full hour earlier than 9, which is when I wake up on Saturdays. Then I roll over and reread the book I was reading last night when I fell asleep with my nose between pages 84 and 85. (Or whatever. Feel free to insert your lucky numbers here.) Lately it’s been Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, a book that warrants multiple re-readings because it is so weird and prescient. CSB, meanwhile, has milked the chickens, burned yesterday’s manuscripts, and taken my mother to church. I know it is time to get out of bed when he comes back from the early service and tells me what comments my mother made during the sermon. Examples are: “There many of them have beards [points to the ceiling] and they all have toes,” and “Phew. Now I can find what I lost.” Attendance at the early service ranges from three to seven; CSB reports to me exactly who was present, and how many times my mother counted. In French. My mother, not CSB.”
BREAKFAST LIKE A QUEEN “Then it’s time to caffeinate.” Christine is a tea drinker. We asked her why. “Because I am not a coffee drinker, and those two are the only options.” Unsurprisingly, Christine takes nutrition seriously. “If there is any dessert left over in the frig I will definitely eat that for my first breakfast course. Fruit tarts are best, but in a pinch I will have chocolate mousse or baked Alaska. Second breakfast is always two poached eggs over Gallo Pinto with a dollop of yogurt. Some things never change, nor should they.” In addition to her other attributes, Christine is thoughtful and discreet. “Because yours is a so-called Family Newspaper, I will skip over the next hour of my Sunday Routine. Let your imaginations run wild.”
WHAT TO WEAR WHETHER YOU ARE SEEING THE POPE OR NOT… “Since all week long I dress for success with bespoke corduroys pants, flannel shirts, vintage cashmere sweaters with almost no moth holes, and socks featuring bees or chickens, on Sundays I like to turn off my inner fashion-meter. Just this past Sunday I garbed myself in silk pajamas dotted with congealed egg yolk, and a djellaba from Cairo my grandfather wore in 1951. To keep warm I draped myself with a fur stole, but don’t worry, whatever it was has been dead longer than you have been alive. I always wear a hat on Sundays. Sometimes choosing the right one can take a very long time.” We saw a small complement of the hats in question, and can sympathize with challenge to choose just one.
KEEPING FITTER “Friends tell me that exercise is very popular these days, so on Sundays I often exercise. Unless I participated in exercise during the previous week, in which case I will rest. My favorite exercise is ping-pong. I used to be the Costa Rican junior ping pong champion so it tends to be difficult to find players who are willing to compete against me, because I will beat the pants off them and then gloat. Just thinking about the difficulty of finding a suitable opponent tires me out.”
MORE FOOD “On Sundays CSB and I like to throw caution to the winds and radically alter our lunch menu. Just last week I had almond butter instead of peanut butter. That was fun, but one shouldn’t indulge too often.”
KULCHUR “I can’t help noticing that most of the subjects of this feature feel compelled to tell you about their Sunday’s cultural activities. I don’t know where to start. I like art projects that also reduce clutter. My latest masterpiece involves burning old postcards and gluing them onto my grandmother’s watercolors. Since I have thousands of old postcards (still) and hundreds of my grandmother’s paintings (numbers may be inexact), this is a very useful and cultural thing to do.”
AND MORE FOOD “My fondest childhood memories are of Sunday dinners at my grandfather’s house. Under the dining room table my grandfather had a button, cleverly concealed beneath the Persian carpet, which he would depress with his foot to summon the cook. A favorite activity for those of us who were not required to discuss fluctuations in the cotton market was to slide under the table and press the button. Frequently. Relentlessly. Very soon after her untimely death, my grandfather’s cook, Mrs. Herlihy, was nominated for sainthood, on account of her saintly refusal to kill us. Her beatification sped through the Vatican red tape. Countless friends and colleagues of my grandfather eagerly wrote to the Holy See to testify on behalf of Mrs. Herlihy’s sanctity, as well as to confess their dismay that she never once dismembered even one of us. That tells you everything you need to know about our Sunday Dinner Routine.”
AND FINALLY “Come Sunday evening I need to mentally prepare myself for the week ahead. This often involves scuba diving. Bedtime cannot come soon enough.”




*If you are not a regular reader of the Times’ “Sunday Routine” feature, you will probably not find this funny. You will most likely find it puerile and pointless.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Recycling Rant

If you are going to recycle and want to feel good –or just unshitty - about recycling and the possibility of mitigating the imminent environmental collapse of the planet – then do not, as in do not EVER, actually deliver your recycling to your local recycling center or DPW.
Because if you do at least two things will happen.
1. You will despair of the planet.
2. You will think very unpleasant thoughts about your fellow citizens.
The irony being that these fellow citizens, about whom you will think deprecating thoughts, are the very ones who are availing themselves of the recycling bins. But they are doing it so very very badly.

There are two ways to recycle in our town. The first, and for many simplest, is to leave your recycling out on the curb on the appointed pick up days. One blue bin for paper, and another blue bin (in fact the bin may be any color you like, even mauve) for recyclable plastic and glass and metal. Note the adjective RECYLABLE. Recyclable means NO Styrofoam, no broken lights bulbs, no light bulbs at all, no plastic bags (These can be recycled at specific bins outside the local Foodtown), no electronics, no heavy metals, no paint cans.
The second way to recycle in our town to load up your recycling into your car and personally bring it down to the DPW, where they have 4 dumpsters for paper, and 3 smaller dumpsters for plastics.
That seems fairly simple, does it not?

You could point out that all our local efforts to recycle are but a pea shooter directed at the ginormous monster that is Climate Change wrought by human activities and the increase in greenhouse gases, a ginormous monster that will likely devour our planet before our valiant local recycling efforts make any difference at all to the End of Life as We Know It.

I will not point that out because, well because most days a tiny peashooter is all I have at hand. Plus, recycling makes me feel marginally better about being a citizen of such a ponderously wasteful and selfish country.

Which brings me to this specific rant. Here at Let it Bee farm, we bring our recycling to the DPW once every week or two. Also my mother’s recycling, a concept she no longer comprehends. CSB, who feels very strongly about these matters, does not like leaving our recycling at the curb because papers often blow away and get strewn across the road and become dreaded litter. That is why we load up the back of his pickup with our blue bins and go to the DPW, where we put all our paper and cardboard into the large Paper Dumpsters, and we put our plastic and glass and cans into the Mixed Metals Dumpsters. (I have to admit that keeping to this plan becomes especially challenging when we are dealing with plastic water bottles that were pissed into and then thrown out of some tiny-bladdered slob’s car onto the verge along Broadway, where I periodically collect litter. For more about this, see SQD: Rant about Littering.)
The signage makes it quite clear which is which. The signage also states very clearly that NO plastic bags are to be thrown in with the plastic and glass etc.

Here lies the problem. By personally delivering our recycling to the dumpsters at the DPW, I have the opportunity to see what my fellow citizens – obviously well-intentioned citizens who want to recycle and Save the Planet – put into the dumpsters.
Just this week, in the dumpsters designated for paper and cardboard, I saw: aluminum takeout containers, paint cans, heavy plastic detergent containers, a stainless-steel water dispenser, and a fluffy white bathrobe.
It was the bathrobe that put me over the edge. You can blame the bathrobe for this rant. I received a quite similar fluffy white bathrobe as a Christmas gift, and while I did not actually need a bathrobe (fluffy or otherwise,) I have grown fond of it. On account of it being so fluffy. Bathrobes, fluffy or not, never belong in the Paper and Cardboard Dumpster.




I have not even addressed the very compelling question of those plastic windows in envelopes from organizations seeking to part you from your money, or annoy you in other ways.
Nor have I once mentioned what happens to recycling machinery when the wrong materials are fed into the maw.
Also unmentioned is the serious likelihood that because of the co-mingling of contaminated materials, the whole lot will be rejected by the recyclers and added to an already enormous landfill.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Dante and Unanswered questions



Sometimes a small and apparently unimportant question, such as, Why did my mother acquire so many postcards of William Blake’s Lucia carrying Dante in His Sleep? will trigger a slew of other questions. There is a domino effect to questions, as with so much else.
Postcard stashes are one thing. I can forgive myself for not knowing the reason for them. I can even speculate. The watercolor, one of Blake’s illustrations for the Divine Comedy, is owned by the Fogg Museum at Harvard. I guess that this particular surfeit has something to do with the HILR (Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement) class on Dante’s Paradiso that my father took in 2010. After his strokes, my father forgot discreet decades of his life (Please explain how Cuba came to be Communist, he once said), but his judgment and critical powers were remarkably intact. So, he kept on taking classes at HILR, and, as always, was a diligent and engaging student. That did not stop him from calling on the evening before his class and asking me to read Dante’s Paradiso and come up with 10 or 12 pithy observations and insightful questions. I got off easily. When Dad was studying the Economics of Global Climate Change, he called my sister and asked her to read the assigned text, 836 pages of small print, and give him a detailed synopsis.
Now what do I do with these 20 postcards? Would you like one?
That was just the beginning. In the latest pile we found multiple postcards from Ireland. We had no idea she had even been to Ireland. She had 37 – thirty-seven! – postcards of a detail of the Tara Brooch, from the National Museum of Ireland. Not even the whole brooch, just a detail.

As for the Tara Brooch, it raises more than a few questions, and not just about my mother's stash. Although it is called the Tara Brooch, the piece was found near Bettystown in County Meath, at least 25 kilometers from Tara. It was discovered by either a peasant woman, or her two sons, or one of her sons. The brooch didn’t even start the fashion in Celtic Revival jewelry. That was already in full swing in 1850 when the brooch appeared. And apropos of nothing, my mother was never interested in things Celtic; her tastes ran to the French, the Egyptian, the Ethiopian, and the Vietnamese.

No, that felucca has sailed. I will never ever know why the Dante cards, why the Tara Brooch, why the eight postcards of Mrs Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary, by an unknown American of the 17th century. So many unknowns.
How can I not be annoyed with the idiotic former self who neglected to ask: What are the full names of the seven suitors who wooed and wanted to wed you, my mother, before you met my father? Why, when you kept so many other things, did you destroy the letters from Mr. Jago? Why did you stop going to Mass for many years, and then start up again? Who was your favorite child? Was there ever a time when you knew more than a few dozen words in Arabic? Did my father ever work for the CIA?
Don’t be too harsh, I tell myself. At least five years before we had the tiniest inkling, my mother was already afflicted with Alzheimer’s. She was just covering it up fairly well. As was my father, on her behalf and his own. They were in denial. Not for nothing was my mother who grew up in Egypt known as Queen of Da Nile. Her mantra was, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.” Mine might well have been, “Spit it out. Think later.”
Those fucking questions.
There are so many things I will never know, now that a typical conversation with my mother conversation proceeds thus:
Mom: There’s that nice little thing there in the back….(She is lying on her bed with the duvet pulled up to her chin, and facing the Christmas tree on her screened porch.)
Christine: Do you mean the tree?
M: Yes, the tree.
C: It’s very nice.
M: Everybody thought it was mortar.
C: Mortar or water?
M: Mortar.
C: Oh.
M: Well they wanted to be mean and everybody always…I couldn’t believe it, it was so bad.
C: I’m sorry.
M: Sigh.
C: Everything is fine now.
M: But I have some things. I have some red papers which are white and they’re going to go in here (she lifts the duvet slightly and leans slightly inward) and they’re going to go in here and they …….
C: OK! Mom! Everything is lovely.

One of the more disheartening things I have noticed, whenever I set out to transcribe a conversation with my mother, is how limited my own vocabulary becomes. I use more words, and more complex words, with a three-year-old. My mother can still speak three languages, and can make no sense in any of them. It is like trying to cook a meal with three ingredients, and one is water and one is half a carrot.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Most recent favorite sentences


Sometimes life is too much with us, and politics are too late and too soon, and your fingers are too cold to type. But sometimes reading a wonderful sentence can cheer you up for a whole day. Sentences are a gift, and for these two I am grateful to Gideon Lewis-Kraus.

They can be found in a Times Magazine article about archeologists finding bones on a island of Vanuatu, and how their discovery and interpretation caused a ruckus in the anthropological world. That was all interesting, but the best parts, for me, were these two sentences:

“A meaningful national identity [of Vanuatu] has been constructed from a common appreciation of ceremonial pig-tusk bracelets and the taking of kava, a very mild narcotic root that looks like primordial pea soup and tastes like a fine astringent dirt.”

“Kava is a cloudy green tonic, served in little miso bowls meant to resemble coconut shells. The custom is to collect your shell, retire to the corner of a nearby shadow, take the entirety at one draft and then spit the particulate remnants; by nightfall, when even the city is blanketed in thick dark, the only regular sounds are the screech of the fruit bats and the hock of spit.”


Pictures from Wikipedia.